Since the 1970s, Frida Kahlo (1907–54) has been considered Mexico’s most internationally renowned artist, outshining even her husband, Diego Rivera, who recognized her as “the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women”. Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek, further consolidated her role as a feminist icon. Her work is deeply personal, centred on her insecurities and her relations with her family, her country and her politics. “I paint myself,” she said, “because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best.” Her relatively short painting career was never prolific and the largest collection of her work is at the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño.

Early life

The daughter of a mestizo Mexican mother and Hungarian Jewish father, Frida was born in the Blue House in Coyoacán (now the Museo Frida Kahlo). When she was 6, she battled a bout of polio that left her right leg withered. She rebounded and, as a precocious 14-year-old at Mexico City’s top school, first met Diego Rivera (twenty years her senior) who was painting a mural there. She shocked her friends by declaring that she wished to conceive his child “just as soon as I convince him to cooperate”, but they didn’t meet again for many years.

Marriage to Rivera

At 18, and already breaking free of the roles then ordained for women in Mexico, Frida had begun to pursue a career in medicine when she suffered a gruesome accident. The bus she was riding in was struck by a tram, leaving her with multiple fractures and a pelvis skewered by a steel handrail. It was during the months she spent bedridden, recovering, that she first took up a paintbrush. Later in life, she reflected “I had two accidents in my life. One was the bus, the other Diego.” After her recovery she fell in with a left-leaning bunch of artists, free-thinkers and Communists where she again met Rivera. Within a year they were married: she a striking, slender woman of 21; he a massively overweight man twice her age with a frog-like face and an unparalleled reputation for womanizing. Diego went about his affairs quite publicly (including briefly with Frida’s sister, Cristina). He was furious when Frida took up with other men, but her several affairs with women seemed to delight him. After her death he wrote, “Too late now, I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”

Artistic career

Encouraged by Diego, Frida pursued her painting career. Over half of her canvases are self-portraits: imbued with sophisticated personal symbolism, with themes of abortion, broken bones and betrayed love explored through the body set in an unlikely juxtaposition of elements.

In 1932 Frida miscarried and was hospitalized in Detroit where she painted Henry Ford Hospital. This disturbing depiction of her grief shows her naked body lying on a bed in an industrial wasteland, surrounded by a foetus, pelvic bones and surgical implements all umbilically tied back to her. After returning to Mexico, her circle of friends expanded to include Trotsky (with whom she had a brief affair), Cuban Communist Julio Antonio Mella and muralist David Siqueiros (later implicated in an attempt to kill Trotsky). By now Frida and Diego were living in paired houses in San Ángel, which allowed them to maintain relatively separate lives. In 1939 they divorced, a devastating event Frida recorded in Autoretrato con el Pelo Cortado (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair), in which her trademark long tresses and indigenous tehuana dresses (both much loved by Diego) are replaced by Diego’s oversized suit and cropped hair. They remarried a year later, with Frida insisting on financial independence and a celibate relationship.

The injuries from her accident dogged her throughout her life, and as her physical condition worsened she found solace in her work (as well as drink and painkilling drugs), painting La Columna Rota (The Broken Column), in 1944, with her crushed spine depicted as an Ionic column. Despite increasing commercial and critical success, Frida had only one solo exhibition of her work during her lifetime, in Mexico City just a year before she died. In her later years she was wheelchair-bound, but continued the political activism she had always pursued, and died after defying medical advice and taking part in a demonstration against American intervention in Guatemala while she was convalescing from pneumonia in July 1954. By this stage, she knew she was dying; defiantly, on her last work, she daubed the words “Viva la Vida” – “Long Live Life”.

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